‘Doctor Who’: ‘The Rebel Flesh’ review

After two episodes of stories written by new writers to the show, Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes co-creator Matthew Graham returns to Doctor Who with a two-parter featuring some familiar faces. Question is, will we be asking for a double?

SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS EPISODE…

Doppelgangers are at the heart of this story, which Steven Moffat described as a cross between The Thing and Made In Dagenham. Team TARDIS find themselves back on Earth (albeit the future) in a monastery that produces facsimiles of a group of workers; to save the actual “real” human bodies being damaged.

It’s not long before a solar storm strikes at the facility, rendering the “Gangers”, as the originals refer to their copies, with new properties and powers. Thus begins the crucial question at the heart of the story – do the lookalikes share the moral rights as their inspiration?

It’s a sci-fi question that’s been addressed numerous times and there’s certainly a touch of Blade Runner about the Gangers and their desire to be taken as equals (most notably during a scene where one of them examines a picture of ‘herself’ as a child). However, it should be pointed out, ‘The Rebel Flesh’ only begins to offer answers (with more coming next week, we assume).

Tonally, Matthew Graham (whose previous Doctor Who outing was 2006’s Olympic Torch-bearing ‘Fear Her’) has presented an incredibly serious script that demands attention and, indeed, on repeat viewings you’ll appreciate the nuances of the argument and some interesting, seemingly throwaway remarks by The Doctor after the gang land on Earth.

The Time Lord’s trademark humour is still here though, and a delightful TARDIS scene immediately post-credits will raise both a titter and a giggle. Smith brings his usual charm to the table, but his Doctor is up to something and it’s exciting to see him so tricksy.

Coming to the fore in this episode is Rory (Arthur Darvill), who embarks on a relationship with one of the Gangers, Jennifer (Sarah Smart). It’s an odd, slightly questionable friendship as his nurse sensibilities emerge again; caring for the scared girl, chasing after her at every turn (much to Amy’s concern).

Sadly, much of the guest cast fail to illuminate. Marshall Lancaster retreads his role as Chris Skelton from the aforementioned Life On Mars, whilst Raquel Cassidy, so engaging in Party Animals (also starring Matt Smith) and so likable in Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon, also delivers a fairly monotone performance (despite playing “two” characters).

Slightly jarring is the way in which the two factions so easily split off; and how readily the others seem to follow the simple chant of “us and them”. It’s simplistically tribal, though the fact that Ganger Jennifer (Jennger? Gangifer?), who we sympathise with, leads her fellow clones whilst her boss Cleaves (Cassidy) seems to not share in her warmongering (though her original instigated the animosity) does add an interesting layer of complexity.

The complexity levels are ramped even more in the denouement with the appearance (well sign-posted, it has to be said) of The Ganger Doctor. His reveal, to be frank, is slightly let down by the computer-generated effects work. Matt Smith’s face is tad unconvincing in the pixel department, though it’s still an incredible moment to behold.

But a second Doctor does have ramifications for the series in general and we have to wonder if this faux Time Lord is possibly the same one we met in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’. Has Steven Moffat got his get-out clause prepared by having us watch the “fake” Doctor blasted by the lake in the series opener? Perhaps, but we’re sure the show’s head writer has something infinitely more gasp-worthy to offer than this (we hope, at least).

In feel, this episode shares similarities with last year’s base-under-seige story ‘The Hungry Earth’, whilst also evoking ‘The Vampires Of Venice’ in its aesthetic (and even the odd moment). The direction does its very best to scare through some cracking canted angles and moody lighting, though the sometimes flat characters and decidedly iffy CG work do detract at times from the terror.

‘The Rebel Flesh’ is a brave attempt at some adult themes and issues but seems slightly misplaced in its Saturday tea-time slot here in the UK. However, the cliffhanger (one which you will inevitably see coming) is still a shock and poses yet more questions/theories about this series…


Airs at 6.45pm on Saturday 21st May 2011 on BBC One.

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